15 Nov Three Women Reshaping Silicon Valley
The data and anecdotal stories on women of color in technology can be depressing. But many success stories prove a woman can break through.
From the #MeToo movement to Black Lives Matter, the technology industry has had to take a cold, hard look at its lack of diversity and inclusiveness—particularly for women of color.
Although many have made efforts to do better, from funding coding bootcamps for women and people of color to fostering more mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, there’s still plenty of room to grow.
The number of women in technology still painfully lags: women made up 25 percent of the computing workforce in 2020, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Of that, 3 percent were Black, 7 percent were Asian, and 2 percent were Hispanic.
With numbers that paltry, the only direction to go is up. Meet three women of color who have led the charge in Silicon Valley and are challenging the status quo.
Trinidad Hermida took an unconventional path to her role as head of diversity and inclusion at Niantic Inc., the mobile gaming company that created Pokémon GO. Part of a military family, she grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area before Silicon Valley was known as “Silicon Valley.” Her parents were engineers, but it never occurred to her that she could pursue a career in technology.
Instead, Hermida fell in with gangs and drugs as a teenager, and dropped out of college. She struggled for some time before finding a new purpose through church. An overseas missionary trip and a master’s degree in theology later, she took a job as an executive assistant at a nonprofit in Boston. One day, the nonprofit sponsored her to attend a conference for women of color, where Jackie Glenn—then Dell
EMC’s global chief diversity officer—was the keynote speaker. Inspired, Hermida struck up a conversation with Glenn.
It was a fateful connection. Hermida applied for and landed a position working with Glenn in the diversity and inclusion department at Dell EMC, launching her into a career in technology. Hermida then joined Niantic and became a board member of Latinx in Gaming. She enabled Niantic’s leaders to build an inclusive and welcoming culture for its employees, training them not only to understand issues such as racism and discrimination theoretically, but to apply that knowledge to their lives and to how they interact with each other, develop products, and sell them.
“It’s not just about teaching people about implicit and unconscious bias,” she says. “It is about empowering people with tools to be open to uncomfortable conversations and hearing feedback.”
Her role required her to be agile and regularly reevaluate how the company was operating, especially with the impact of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. It was uncharted territory.
Hermida is now embarking on her next adventure. To broaden her impact, she recently left Niantic to launch her own consulting firm, The Hermida Company, which uses an empathy-centered approach to help organizations build equity. The consultancy provides training, executive coaching, and consulting to create initiatives that connect directly to an organization’s bottom line.
As one of the earliest employees at Quora, the online question-and-answer forum, Tracy Chou started responding to some of the questions herself. Chou shared her experiences as an Asian American woman and software engineer, and she began thinking about the lack of diversity in the industry and the reasons for it.
Chou was heartened by most of the responses, including people of color reaching out to commiserate. She also received unwanted, uncomfortable, and unrelenting messages from others. The experience led her to build Quora’s first block button, a tool to protect herself—and others—from online harassment.
A few years later, Chou, now a software engineer at Pinterest, attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, where she heard Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg speak about the declining number of women in technology. The speech stuck with her. But in an industry driven—even obsessed—by data, Chou couldn’t find much data on the exact number of women in engineering in Silicon Valley. In an essay on Medium, she asked, “Where are the numbers?”
“Every company has some way of hiding or muddling the data on women actually in engineering roles,” she wrote.
Her story went viral and prompted some numbers to roll in. It was a start. Chou then teamed up with other female leaders in technology, including Ellen Pao, Erica Baker, and Freada Kapor Klein, and cofounded Project Include, a nonprofit that advocates for diversity and inclusiveness in the tech industry. “I wanted to shift from talking about the problem to talking about solutions,” she says.
But as Chou began speaking more and raising her profile, the amount of online harassment increased, too, especially on social media. As a software engineer with start-up experience, Chou realized she was in a unique position to do something about it: she founded Block Party, an app that helps manage your exposure to online harassment and trolling on Twitter.
Chou also recognized her unique position as an Asian American woman in engineering, someone who both faces bias as a woman and woman of color and is often seen as “white adjacent” and close to the center of power.
On the one hand, Chou, who grew up in Silicon Valley, had an early role model in her mother, who was also an engineer. Chou studied computer science at Stanford and landed prestigious internships at Google and Facebook. Even so, she was regularly made to feel out of place, receiving “compliments” that implied she was too young or pretty to be an accomplished software engineer. The combination of those experiences have fueled her desire to speak up and change the tech industry’s lack of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness.
“I feel I have been so fortunate,” Chou says about her career path. “I want to pay it forward. I feel I should do what I can to make this system more equitable.”
Sent to a predominantly white school in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now a high-profile executive in the technology industry, Rachel Williams is used to being “the only Black girl.”
That’s something she’s changing. Until recently, Williams served as the head of equity, inclusion, and diversity talent acquisition at X, the moonshot factory, a team that works on solving major problems, such as hunger and is part of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.
There, in addition to leading recruiting and retention efforts, she worked to create an environment that celebrates differences, even if, on the surface, all the employees are mostly one gender or race. One thing she did, she says, was ensure that all practices, policies, and procedures were equitable, including the companies all-hands meetings, newsletters, training programs, and other points of contact with employees, asking, “How are you showing different perspectives inside your organization?”
“What I love about innovation and technology is that we do ask those tough questions,” she says.
Williams’s first job after graduating from UC Berkeley was with Accenture, the large consulting firm. She then landed at a tech start-up, where she fell in love with its culture—the creativity, the growth mind-set, the openness to new ideas (and, yes, the “snacks and food all day long and Ping-Pong tables and no panty hose,” she says with a laugh).
But then Williams began working with a microagressive boss. “I wasn’t sure how to describe how I was feeling,” she says. “I just knew I had to get out of there.”
She left the company but, in the process, also left millions of dollars on the table: the start-up soon took off, went public, and enriched many of its employees—just not Williams.
Then Rev. Jesse Jackson stepped into the picture. In 2014, the civil rights leader began calling out Silicon Valley tech companies for their lack of diversity and transparency. It made a difference: companies such as Yelp began releasing data on the demographics of its employees, and vowed to do better.
In late 2021, Williams accepted a new role as CDO of The Motley Fool. The tech industry still has work to do, but she is heartened by the progress that’s been made in the past several years, as well as the continued scrutiny and pressure on Silicon Valley. “This work can’t be done without an ecosystem of support and accountability,” she says. DW
Ellen Lee is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area and a former technology reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
By Ellen Lee